Years ago, I saw a video on YouTube — since removed, it seems, though a few like it still remain — of a GTAV player deliberately brutalizing some of the game’s trans sex workers for his own amusement. In the comments, one viewer voiced these chilling words of encouragement: “You’re doing God’s work.”
There’s no shortage of transphobia in and around games, but this particular example has stuck with me more than any other. Sometimes, when someone says or does something that puts me on guard, I flash back to that video, to that comment. Then I wonder if any of the strangers around me would enjoy hurting me, or if they think that when someone murders somebody for being trans, they’re doing “God’s work.”
Grand Theft Auto V originally came out in 2013. Since then, the cultural conversation about trans people has shifted somewhat. More public figures have come out as trans, more films and TV shows now offer humanising depictions of trans people, and more young people are growing up in environments where they’re safe and supported in expressing their trans and nonbinary identities.
At the same time, conservatives are framing the increased visibility and acceptance of trans people as a threat, and anti-trans bills are flooding state legislatures. As reported by CNN, over 30 states have introduced over 100 pieces of legislation intended to limit our rights, and with them, our freedom to fully exist in American public life. (It’s hard to be out in public if you can’t use public bathrooms.) Trans young people, a group particularly vulnerable to depression and suicide, are bearing the brunt of this attack. There are bills that would ban young trans athletes from playing on teams that match their gender, as well as bills that seek to ban gender-affirming healthcare for minors. All the while, transgender people remain at high risk of experiencing employment discrimination and housing discrimination.
And tragically, any perceived gains trans people may be making aren’t doing anything to curb the ongoing epidemic of anti-trans violence, which disproportionately impacts Black trans women. This very same year that trans actress Mj Rodriquez made history by being nominated for an Emmy for her outstanding work in the TV series Pose also looks as if it will be the deadliest year yet for trans and gender-nonconforming Americans.
It’s against this backdrop that Grand Theft Auto V will be getting yet another release in 2022, making this the third consecutive console generation for which Rockstar’s open-world crime epic has been updated and sold. At the PlayStation Showcase earlier this month, the game got an underwhelming trailer that touted “improved graphics” and “enhanced gameplay,” leaving some fans wondering just what, after all this time, could possibly make the prospect of GTA V all that exciting again in 2022.
That’s a fair question, but I have other questions, too. Questions like: Will Rockstar reckon with the game’s transphobia? Will the company make any adjustments so that the game doesn’t lend itself so aggressively to fulfilling the murderous transphobic fantasies of players who hate us?
Often, people respond to concerns like this by pointing out that you can target and kill anyone in Grand Theft Auto V. The game is “equal opportunity” in the freedom it offers you to wreak havoc in Los Santos, they say. If you want to, you can target white guys in cargo pants, or people doing yoga.
But there’s nothing “equal opportunity” about the position trans people hold in society right now. And unlike other random NPCs, the way Rockstar designed GTAV’s trans people actively plays into the hateful stereotypes harbored by many transphobic players. The trans sex workers you can encounter, with their garish makeup and prominent penis bulges, seem calculated to be ridiculous and repulsive to players who bring their pre-existing transphobia to the game with them. It’s as if they’re designed specifically so that some players could relish hurting and killing them because they are trans.
And they’re situated in a world that overflows with transphobic “jokes” that you can’t escape. As just one small example, in the game’s world you see vehicles belonging to a UPS-style delivery service called Post OP, a company which first appeared in GTA IV. The trucks bear the slogans “No Longer Just Mail” and “your package is safe in our hands.” Hilarious.
GTAV’s depictions of trans people were outdated and insulting even in 2013. Today, they feel profoundly uncool and out of touch, exactly the sort of thing a developer that prides itself on being culturally hip and relevant should want to avoid. For the 2022 release, the character models of trans sex workers from the 2013 edition can simply be removed. Amidst whatever other changes it’s making to the “Enhanced & Expanded” edition, Rockstar can cut them, as well as do away with the clunky transphobic “jokes” that you see on some billboards and vehicles.
We may not yet have a full picture of just what the 2022 release will bring to the table, but we know that Rockstar has made significant alterations to the game in the past, from adding the ability to play in first-person when the game hit the Xbox One and PS4, to the option, via drug-induced hallucination, to play as a variety of animals. It’s really not a lot to expect this from a game that has earned billions of dollars, and that’s about to get yet another release with the aim of earning millions more. Rockstar can afford it.
There’s another option, too. Rockstar could leave the game intact but provide critical context for these representations, as some film studios have done with works from the past. Last year, Gone With the Wind was briefly removed from HBO Max in response to renewed criticism about the ways in which it glorifies slavery and perpetuates racist stereotypes. When it returned to the streaming platform, it was accompanied by a disclaimer acknowledging that the film “denies the horrors of slavery.”
Alongside the film, HBO Max also posted a video hosted by Turner Classic Movies host and film scholar Jacqueline Stewart. She discusses the film’s racist depictions of Black people, but also advocates for viewing it and other racist Hollywood films in their original form, inviting viewers “to reflect on their own values and beliefs.” Similarly, Warner Bros. has contextualised Tom & Jerry cartoons of the 1940s with disclaimers which state that the racist depictions in the cartoons “were wrong then and are wrong today.” Rockstar could be the first to bring this approach of reckoning with harmful representations from the past to video games.
Anti-trans rhetoric and imagery fuels the flames of transphobia, making our lives harder, more precarious, and more dangerous. Yes, GTAV is just one tiny drop in the vast bucket of media that has reinforced transphobia over the decades, but it’s also a cultural juggernaut, a game that has earned billions in revenue, and one that Rockstar clearly hopes will continue pulling in vast sums of money for some time to come. This isn’t censorship I’m advocating for, as the choice remains in Rockstar’s hands. What I want to see is a company reconsidering its own ill-advised creative decisions of the past and opting to address them, rather than just continuing to tweak superficial details like “seamless character switching.” Rockstar is tinkering with the game anyway. Why not make this one of the “enhancements” to this new edition? GTAV: Now with slightly less transphobia!
In many ways, we trans people are fighting for our lives right now. Rockstar has to decide if it cares about that enough to make a few adjustments to its eight-year-old game, or if it wants to keep perpetuating these negative stereotypes even as they feel increasingly dated, callous, and harmful. Either way, the one thing the company can’t avoid doing is sending a message.